Has Nigeria developed a vaccine against Covid-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus?
News of this potentially significant development was widely shared on social media in late June 2020. A barrage of local headlines also broadcast it, with some international media joining in.
“Breakthrough As Nigerian Scientists Unveil Covid-19 Vaccine,” said the headline of Nigeria’s Leadership newspaper.
The Guardian went with “Nigerian universities’ scientists discover vaccine for Covid-19”.
There has been some consternation in the country that Africa’s largest economy has been reduced to a bystander in the global search for ways to counter the pandemic.
Have these Nigerian researchers beaten others in the hunt for a vaccine?
Potential vaccine ‘candidate’, not vaccine, discovered
The story stems from a news conference called on 19 June by a group of scientists based in Nigerian universities. It was widely reported that they said they had discovered a vaccine.
A vaccine is a biological preparation that helps the body’s immune system recognise and fight viruses and bacteria.
The leader of the research team, Dr Oladipo Kolawole of Adeleke University in Osun state, reportedly said the vaccine, while developed in Africa for Africa, would work anywhere.
While the news headlines played up the discovery of a functional vaccine, the articles themselves suggested it was still work in progress.
We, therefore, asked Kolawole what exactly his team had done.
“We referred to the news as a potential vaccine candidate, not a vaccine. Those who referred to it as a vaccine chose to do what they wanted to do,” he told us.
Researchers focused on African data
Kolawole, a specialist in medical virology, immunology and bioinformatics, said the group had explored the SARS-CoV-2 genome from African countries to select the best possible vaccine.
SARS-CoV-2, or “severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2”, is the technical name of the virus that causes Covid-19.
In March 2020, Nigeria’s Centre for Disease Control announced that local researchers had sequenced the genome of the coronavirus strain in the country’s first confirmed case. They found it to be a match with the virus circulating in Italy and Wuhan, China, the health agency said, adding that this was the first time the virus had been sequenced in Africa.
Sequencing refers to investigating the genetic make-up of an organism.
Press conference ‘hasty’ – virology expert
Kolawole was also reported as saying it would take a minimum of 18 months before the vaccine could be unveiled to the public.
He told Africa Check that “[the potential vaccine] has to undergo a lot of test trials before you can conclude finally that it is a vaccine. There are a lot of tests to be conducted in animals, humans, and approval from authorities”.
Professor of virology and former president of the Nigeria Academy of Science, Oyewale Tomori, told Africa Check that the researchers may have been too hasty in calling the press conference as it could lead to the spread of misinformation.
“It is not correct to say we have found a vaccine, instead it should be called a candidate vaccine. To say we have found a vaccine means you have already tested it and confirmed that it is good. If you called it a candidate vaccine, that would have been correct,” Tomori said.
Authorities ‘not aware’
Nigeria’s centre for disease control told Africa Check it had not received an official notice of a locally produced vaccine.
“Scientific innovations are best announced through peer reviewed scientific publications in reputable journals, not via unvalidated press releases,” said Chinwe Ochu, the head of prevention programmes and knowledge management at the agency.
“As much as NCDC will be happy to receive health innovations to support the public health response, such products must follow standard scientific protocols for scrutiny and validation to ensure they are effective and safe.”
The path to a vaccine
What hurdles does a vaccine encounter before it is ready for use? According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention there are six basic stages in developing a vaccine, from the exploratory and clinical development phases to regulatory approval and manufacturing.
As of 23 June 2020, more than 8.9 million cases of Covid-19 had been confirmed around the world. Over 469,000 people had died from the disease. Nigeria had over 20,000 confirmed cases, while more than 500 people had died since the first case was reported on 27 February.
While there were many potential vaccines being developed, there was no operational vaccine available for Covid-19 yet, according to the World Health Organization.
According to a 22 June update by the global health agency, there were 13 different candidate vaccines in clinical evaluation, which is a three-phase process. There were another 129 candidate vaccines across the world in the preclinical evaluation stage. No Nigerian vaccine was listed in the update.
Conclusion: Still long way for Nigeria in search for Covid-19 vaccine
Several media publications reported in late June 2020 that Nigerian scientists had unveiled a vaccine for the new coronavirus.
But the researchers said what they had was a potential vaccine candidate, and it would be months before it could be said to be effective. The country’s NCDC also said it has no knowledge yet of a functional vaccine.
If confirmed as a candidate, it would join the ranks of tens of others that are in various phases of development.
– Additional reporting by Motunrayo Joel